Suicide causes more collegiate deaths than alcohol, study finds
Suicide is more common than alcohol-related death among college students, a recent study of national colleges found.
The study, performed by faculty at the University of Virginia (UVA), suggests that the mortality rate for college students is lower than that of their peers not in college, and that suicide—not alcohol—is the leading cause of death among college students nationwide.
Researchers collected information from 157 colleges across the country, for a full sample size of 1.36 million students between ages 18 and 24. It was the first study to focus solely on causes of death among college students since 1939, Adrienne Keller, co-investigator and associate professor at UVA, said.
While minimizing alcohol abuse is a primary goal of Washington University’s student-safety program, the school has also implemented many programs to help students deal with depression or other mental health issues.
Thomas Brounk, director of Mental Health Services at the University, said that Student Health Services (SHS) works intently to help students cope with psychological struggles. He noted that the number of students visiting SHS for help with depression has increased tremendously in the past several years.
“Last year we saw close to 1,200 students in the counseling service, and probably about half of them were dealing with some form of depression,” Brounk said. He compared this to about 500 students when he first arrived in 1994.
Groups like Uncle Joe’s, a student-run counseling and resource center, also provide emotional and psychological support for students. The program offers confidential, one-on-one meetings with trained individuals to talk about any problems or concerns a student might have.
Such programs, which provide interaction with trained individuals, are vital in reducing suicide rates for college students, Brounk said.
“If they can get treatment before things get really bad, suicide can be totally preventable,” he said.
Beyond quantifying the significance of suicide among college students, the study also found that commonly accepted figures for student alcohol-related deaths were inflated. Keller noted that in the past, the rate of alcohol-related deaths for college students was assumed to be equal to the rate for the same-age in the general population.
The researchers at UVA found that the rate of student alcohol-related deaths were just under five per 100,000, versus about eight per 100,000 for those of the same age but not in college.
A major reason for lower incidence of alcohol-related deaths among college students may be that students drive less after drinking than their non-college peers, Keller said.
“Many of the students in the study are residential and typically walk to where they socialize, which is probably the single biggest reason why our rate of death from alcohol-related traffic accidents is so much lower than what would be predicted by looking at the same-age people in the general population,” she said.
Students suggested that lower fatality rates might also be due to colleges’ alcohol prevention programs. Washington University has all students take an alcohol education online course before freshman orientation, and recently joined the National College Health Improvement Project—a partnership with peer institutions to tackle the alcohol abuse problem on college campuses.
“There was a lot of information about alcohol abuse and the dangers of binge-drinking when we got to campus,” junior Cameron Warren said. “The school did a lot to make sure we were aware of the risks of alcohol, but not much was said about suicide.”
Keller cautioned against generalizing the findings to all college students, as the sample was not statistically random, but derived only from the 157 schools that responded to a survey sent to 1,150 institutions. In particular, she noted that the study overrepresented Caucasians in urban, public universities.